Hello. It’s me; I’m back to reviewing Gillen McKelvie comics after roughly a seven-month hiatus. And I wouldn’t be back if it wasn’t for Phonogram. It’s such a weird, overly complex knot of a love letter to pop music that the first two volumes entranced me, even though the growing pains of the first arc. I hold “The Singles Club” arc up there with the best of their Young Avengers stuff, though. “The Immaterial Girl” throws you right back into this world, beginning with Emily Aster’s childhood, and jumping through time to 2001, and finally to 2009, three years after the events of “Rue Britannia.” We get all three phases of her life: a child, entranced by music videos, who makes a deal she doesn’t understand; a young adult, sure of herself (kind of) and very little else at the founding of the coolest coven of phonomancers in Brighton; an adult, who’s not sure where it all went wrong.
This is pure Phonogram, from the get-go, but it feels like it’s matured. It hasn’t sat stagnant while Gillen and McKelvie went off and did Uncanny X-Men and Thor and Journey Into Mystery and Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine. Much like anything in life, Phonogram feels like a repurposed accumulation of all the things that make Gillen McKelvie into Gillen McKelvie. They’re also taking the things that made “The Singles Club” work (the solid foundation in character development, rather than convoluted plotting) and are putting it on a framework that could have worked for “Rue Britannia.” On the whole, there’s a lot of confusing parts about what’s going on in this book, and perhaps there should be--after all, how much do you know about magic and music? But they feel like good questions to have, and they all revolve around Aster as a solid protagonist.
Another real selling point for this issue is the amount of Emily Aster’s life they’re able to convey in a single issue; she goes from entranced little girl to too-cool-for-literally-anything scene kid to jaded office worker in the span of 25 pages, and it never feels rushed or overstuffed. Gillen and McKelvie have done the supremely important job of finding the moments that make Emily Aster who she is, and letting us visit those moments. I’m still not 100% sure what the fuck The Myth was talking about at the founding of the Coven in Brighton (and why he seems to hate the White Stripes so much), but I know what that day did to Emily Aster. I don’t know what electroclash is, really, but I know what Emily Aster thinks of it.
McKelvie and Wilson are the ones who bring Phonogram to life, for me. Sometimes the dialogue gets caught up in pedantic monologues about the Sugababes or who is allowed to like what kind of music, but the magic of Phonogram lives in the art. McKelvie’s style sits somewhere in the space between the hyperrealism of a guy like Steve McNiven and the strong cartooning of a guy like Jason Latour--the people look very real, like they were drawn from life, but they don’t have that uncanny valley attention to detail. Wilson’s colors are deceptively rich, as well, making each character pop off the page. Their powers combined, they perfectly convey the soft enchantment of a satellite TV set playing music videos, or the ominous founding of a coven in a nightclub, or the sterility and failure of an office job for a person who grew up knowing they were special.
And the real fun of new single issues of Phonogram: new b-sides. In “Everything and Nothing”, illustrated by Sarah Gordon, a minor character, Logos, has matured in the intervening years to the point that he’s recognized Taylor Swift’s music for what it is: curse songs, for bringing back the ghosts of past lovers. He struggles with what we all struggle with, in that his roommate has heard him listen to the same song 17 times in a row; some days you’re the roommate, some days you’re Logos, but we’ve all been there. In the second backup, “Blurred,” regular letterer with Gillen McKelvie Inc, Clayton Cowles, stretches his cartooning muscles for a one-pager with colors from Kelly Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s colors are a seamless fit with Wilson’s in the main book, and Cowles manages to capture a present-day Dave Kohl who looks exactly like Kieron Gillen, sans beard (as we always knew he was). It’s an interesting digression on nostalgia and what makes people of newer generations like bands that have been around (and not necessarily still popular) since before they were born.
This is the book I thought I was getting when The Wicked + The Divine came out. Pop music is magic and the people who can master it are gods, even if they don’t know the spells. Like dropping the needle onto a record from your childhood, the Phonogram song still sounds as good as it did in 2009 when the band went on hiatus. They’re back, and they’re better than ever.
Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 (of 6) Writer: Kieron Gillen Artists: Jamie McKelvie, Sarah Gordon, Clayton Cowles Colorist: Matthew Wilson, Kelly Fitzpatrick Letterer: Clayton Cowles Publisher: Image Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 8/12/15 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital